Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why Submit to Anthologies? by Smoky Trudeau

There’s a nasty little Catch-22 to the publishing business: it seems you have to be published to get published. This can be a frustrating conundrum to the many aspiring writers out there who think they’ve written the next Great American Novel. How do you get a publisher to read your query letter, let alone request your manuscript, if you haven’t published before?

Start small, that’s how. Too often, writers blast out a 150,000-word novel before they’ve cut their teeth on smaller pieces. This is a mistake on several levels. First, I’m sorry, but if you haven’t learned how to write a short story or an essay, you aren’t equipped to write a novel, no matter what your best friend, your mother, or your writer’s group tells you. That would be like a baby running a marathon instead of taking his first tottering steps, or eating a steak as her first solid food. By starting small, you learn the nuances of style, language, plot development, and dialogue. You learn to write tight, concise prose. You earn the right to call yourself an author.

Second, there are many more opportunities to publish short pieces than there are full-length novels. Literary magazines, both print and online, are one example. But perhaps the best place to publish shorter pieces is in an anthology.

Anthologies are book-length collections of prose and/or poetry on a common theme put together by a compiler. The theme may be broad, such as “The Best American Short Stories” or “The Best Stories of the Twentieth Century”; or it may be a narrow, like the Nature’s Gifts anthology from Vanilla Heart Publishing (2009), which had an environmental theme. The big advantage anthologies offer is they are normally much more open to writers who have no publishing credits to their name. Quality is what counts in an anthology submission, not what your publishing resume looks like.

Getting a story published in anthology can help you get your novel published for one simple but important reason: it proves you can write. When you go to query publishers about your novel, you can say you’ve been published, which will make the publisher more likely to pay attention to your query. This is especially true if you then query the anthology publisher about your novel! Once a publisher has worked with you on an anthology piece—once they’ve learned you pay attention to editing advice and can follow instructions about things like submission guidelines—they will be much more open to looking at other things you’ve written.

Of course, publishing in an anthology is great for established writers, too. Anthologies get an author’s name out there. If a reader enjoys a short story you’ve written, she’s likely to buy your novel, too. Try writing a short story that uses the same characters as your novel! It can be a short sequel or prequel to your book, or it can be a story within the parameters of your novel that isn’t told in the book. Getting readers interested in your characters will send them running to Amazon to buy your novel and learn more!

Whether you’re a novice or well-published writer, as with any submission, be sure to pay strict attention to submission guidelines. Don’t, for example, submit a poem to an anthology that is requesting only prose. A piece that was perfect for the Nature’s Gifts anthology wouldn’t be appropriate for Vanilla Heart’s upcoming Passionate Hearts anthology, which has a romantic theme, or their Wild Child anthology, which is open only to submissions written by children aged 17 and under. Pay attention to word counts: Passionate Hearts submissions should be between 1,000 and 10,000 words. Don’t submit a 25,000-word novella. If the publisher asks for an author bio, send one. If they ask for a synopsis, send one. Follow the directions to the letter, sending only what is requested. Nothing more, nothing less.

Pay attention to how your submission looks! If ewe think yore spell checker will fined awl yore miss steaks, u r wrong. (That sentence, for example, cleared my spell checker just fine!) Proofread your story, then proofread it again. Then, have someone else proofread it. Don’t get all fancy with fonts. Arial or Times New Roman in a 12-point size are the accepted standards for type fonts when it comes to submissions. Pick one and use it.

Of course, even if you follow submission guidelines to the letter, there is no guarantee a publisher will accept your story. Anthologies have their limits. If a publisher wants a 200-page book, for example, there are only so many stories they can accept. Don’t take rejection personally! Lots of wonderful stories get rejected because there simply isn’t room for them. Submit early for your best shot, and if your story is rejected, submit it somewhere else! The road to getting published is something akin to running full speed into a brick wall and knocking yourself silly. You have to be willing to get up, wipe the blood from your nose, and say, “Gee, that felt good! I think I’ll try it again!” If you have a talent for writing, and if you do that often enough, eventually you’ll knock down the brick wall.

Smoky Trudeau is the author of the newly released Observations of an Earth Mage, a collection of photos, essays, and poems celebrating our beautiful planet earth. She is also the author of two novels, Redeeming Grace and The Cabin, as well as two books for writers, Front-Word, Back-Word, Insight Out: Lessons on Writing the Novel Lurking Inside Your From Start to Finish, and Left Brained, Write Brained: 366 Writing Prompts and Exercises, all from Vanilla Heart Publishing. You can learn more about Smoky at,, or at her blog on Xanga, You can also look her up on Facebook.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Think Like a Writer - Observing Settings by Robert Hays

Good writers always take seriously the challenge of creating interesting, authentic settings. Previous contributors have offered good suggestions on this front, and my hope merely is to add yet another idea or two. In essence, I’d like to emphasize the value of plain, old-fashioned observation and thinking like a writer.

My friend Walt Harrington, who received multiple Pulitzer Prize nominations for his stunning in-depth personality profiles in the Washington Post, always carried a small, unobtrusive camera on assignment. Before and after his interviews he snapped general setting photos for later reference. His detailed descriptions of the setting were a trademark of his work. (I say were because, like many of us, Walt gave up life as a working journalist to become an academic.) His settings were real and specific to each subject, so accurate detail was important in portraying the people he wrote about.

In fiction writing, we have the freedom to create settings of our choice. But readers will pick up on phony settings pretty quickly. The more realistic and more interesting your setting, the more likely the characters who inhabit it will be believable and interesting to the reader. I’m not suggesting that you need to carry a camera and take setting photographs—although obviously it’s a good way to assure accuracy and pick up on small things you otherwise may miss. I am suggesting that you constantly think like a writer and take careful notes when you observe a setting of interest and, perhaps most important, remember settings you may want to use some day. When you are struck by a terrific setting, store it away in the back of your head. It will pop out sometime when you need it.

I’m using setting here to mean everything from the broad sweep to minor elements that add color and interest. Here is an example:

Probably the most commented on scene in my book, The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris, is that in which Bradley, finally having accepted the inevitability of Lizzie’s death, seeks solitude and takes refuge in the men’s room at a deserted park. Here, he notes but ignores ugly graffiti that normally would make him angry but reacts to a large cockroach trying to escape from a flowing urinal. He rescues the insect, sensing that he holds the power of life and death over it, all the while lamenting the fact that God holds that power over Lizzie and will not give her life.

That scene only works because of the fine detail of the setting. The fine detail of the setting comes straight from my own observations. I actually witnessed a large cockroach trying to escape from a flowing urinal decades ago, when I was in the eighth grade! I was so fascinated by the life and death struggle that I knew I’d one day use it in my writing. (Sorry to say, unlike Bradley, I did not rescue the cockroach.)

The graffiti—some of it quite ugly—also adds to the realism of the setting. Every scribble described is something I’ve seen over the years on the walls of men’s rooms, library carrels, and elsewhere on campus at the University of Illinois. (I know, that’s a sad commentary on our society.) When I saw something particularly expressive I would make a note of it later to add to a file of such things that I kept for use in my writing.

There are plenty of other good examples. Malcolm R. Campbell’s novel, The Sun Singer, grew out of a visit to Allerton Park near Monticello, Illinois, as a youth. That’s when he first saw the striking “Sun Singer” sculpture. I suspect that, even back then, Malcolm thought like a writer!

Robert Hays, Author of Circles in the Water, The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris, and The Baby River Angel Robert Hays' Website

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Critique or Criticism? by Charmaine Gordon

You meet in a creative writing class, and when the twelve week class ends you’ve formed a few friendships. It’s like when you were kids. “Hey, let’s put on a show. My mom can make costumes and I have a barn we can use. . .” You start your own renegade group. “Hey, we can write, meet every week and critique our work better than sitting in a big class and listening to…” Sounds good so far.

Everyone is equal. No one is published – yet, and you like and trust each other. Everyone works diligently and one day, you write The End to your first story. You are the one to write the first query and come to meetings with rejections but it’s your nature to survive and thrive. So you begin another story. The friends seem more interested in what you’re doing than in their writing and they become more critical. You keep writing and incorporate their ideas because you trust them.

Your first book is PUBLISHED! The women want to expand the group-a good idea-new blood-fresh input and you’re the first one with a real live book and now you’re not just a person who writes. You are an author. They purchase your book, you sign, so excited to be doing this, and continue writing the second story.

The expanded group has grown to ten. Not everyone brings pages to read to meeting. They eat lunch, talk about health and grandchildren, and finally get down to reading pages because it’s getting late. Lots of attention is paid to every comma you do or don’t use, and many questions about who, what, why have you written this and that. You drive home shaking your head. It’s getting to be a struggle. When book two is published, the congratulations slows to minimal and some of the women don’t purchase the book. Hmm. No biggie but hmm. You’re not looking for a standing ovation but it’s a huge accomplishment to be published. Ah well.

It’s unpleasant to discover friends can change and no longer be true friends. The sky is filled with stars; there’s room for all if us. If they feel my star has outshone theirs, perhaps it’s because I work and focus. I have the fever to express, to tell a story. And I’m not afraid to cry and laugh as I write. I’m not in competition with anyone. I write for the passion of writing.

I thought all this behavior was left behind when you grew up. I guess not.

If you’ve had similar experiences with critique groups, I’d sure like to hear about them. Just a snippet to let me know I’m not alone.

P.S. The VHP family welcomed me with open arms a few months ago. I thank all of you for making me feel at home.

NOTE from Kimberlee: I thought this might be a good place to add Smoky Trudeau's Critique Group Guidelines she uses in her classes, so thanks, Smoky!


When You are Reviewing Another Student’s Work:

* Try to always begin with a positive comment. It is as important for writers to know what works with their writing in addition to what doesn’t.
* Be specific and objective. Offer suggestions, not just criticism. “I don’t know, I just don’t like it,” or “It was good, I liked it” are not specific, objective, or helpful.
* Direct your comments to the writing, not the writer.
* Don’t focus on grammar or punctuation—that’s the job of an editor, not of critique group members.
* Don’t repeat what others have already said.

When Your Work is Being Reviewed:

* Stay out of the discussion unless you are asked a specific question. This is hard, because you will want to defend your work. But you need to let the work speak for itself. If asked to clarify something, limit your response only to what is asked.
* Don’t take negative comments personally. No one is judging you—they are critiquing your work. Critique is NOT the same as criticism. Writers who don’t learn to distinguish between the two can rest assured they never will be published.
* Remember, ultimately you are the only one who can judge whether or not you take the advice offered by your peers. If you have doubts about their input, or need further clarification of comments, talk to your editor or publisher.

The dance of life continues with all steps forward-no slip sliding as in the past. I am excited,over-joyed,ecstatic. Get the picture? This author is one happy woman. To Be Continued, my first book with Vanilla Heart Publishing, has gotten good reviews. Women write that they cheer when the straying husband gets what's coming to him. My latest novel, Starting Over, romance/suspense has just been released, and Now What?, my paranormal/psychic romance is due out soon.